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Penny wise, pound foolish austerity trip

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By K.P. NAYAR in Washington
  • Published 15.09.09

Washington, Sept. 14: External affairs minister S.M. Krishna’s decision on the rebound to give up his 14-seater Embraer VVIP squadron aircraft will cost the government much more than any money saved by South Block's symbolic austerity measures, which are acquiring the trappings of a cruel joke on people suffering from drought.

Officials of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) were running round in circles today, pruning the minister's delegation to Belarus and Turkmenistan and booking him economy class on commercial flights to Minsk and Ashgabat for Tuesday.

Since Krishna will not use his Embraer plane for this visit, MEA’s travel agency, the public sector Balmer Lawrie and Company, has booked the minister and his aides on a commercial flight to Frankfurt at the time of writing. This route may yet change, officials told The Telegraph.

If it were not for the austerity measures, there was no need for Krishna to have gone to Frankfurt at all. Or to pay Lufthansa, the German airline, for seats for the minister and his delegation.

They could have flown on the Embraer direct to Minsk with a refuelling stop in Tehran or Baku, a source in the VVIP squadron told this newspaper.

Now, from Frankfurt, Krishna and his officials will take a connecting flight to Minsk. That means they will spend more time in the air than was otherwise necessary, time which could have been used on affairs of the state.

Travel agents for MEA invested considerable effort finding paid flights for the minister from Minsk to Ashgabat, a route that is not well connected.

One option was to fly from Minsk to Moscow, a route that is well serviced and then from Moscow to Ashgabat, which generally thought of as unreliable.

Eventually, a flight was found from Minsk to Ashgabat, but given the record of airlines on that route, it is more than likely that this flight may be delayed or cancelled, forcing the government to re-route the minister on yet another circuitous flight path or pay for expensive hotel rooms for one night in a city abroad.

It is highly unlikely that any Indian ambassador will book his minister in a cheap motel and tell him that the austerity drive in New Delhi has forced the embassy to stay away from better hotels.

Whatever may be the rationale for pruning spending in other ministries, it is unlikely to work in South Block, which has to deal with the world outside and make the best of global systems that make economic sense even when they appear to have shades of extravagance.

President Pratibha Patil has just returned from a visit to Tajikistan, a country whose strategic importance for India is only expected to increase as the war situation in Afghanistan gets inevitably more complicated in the months to come.

This means Krishna will have to visit Tajikistan sooner than later. With his private Embraer jet, a symbol of luxury in populist view, he could have taken a short, direct flight path from New Delhi to Dushanbe.

But with the austerity drive, Krishna will fly from New Delhi to Dubai, then to Moscow and from there to Dushanbe on three different commercial flights because that is the most reliable commercial route to get to Tajikistan.

It would, indeed, appear that the phrase, “penny wise, pound foolish” was invented to describe the Indian government’s efforts at austerity in the name of drought-stricken people.

An MEA official calculated that the government will now spend taxpayers’ money on Krishna’s stay at the Foreign Service Institute till such time as his house is ready.

In the residential wing of Maurya Sheraton hotel, where the minister was staying in accommodation paid for by his son-in-law’s company, South Block did not spend a rupee on his lodging.

The same perverted logic applies to the accommodation at Taj Mansingh, which the minister of state for external affairs, Shashi Tharoor, was asked to vacate.

Krishna’s decision to cut down his overseas delegations to three persons also does not make economic sense, except for purposes of propaganda by those in the government who have devised the current austerity drive.

In many countries, host governments put up entire visiting delegations or part thereof -- such as in the vast presidential compound in Dushanbe to demonstrate close friendship -- and the actual expenditure for the government is very little.

In any case, when delegations come from such countries, they have to be put up by the Indian government for reasons of reciprocity. So, the net loss for India is in the quality of official visits abroad and in the range or scope of bilateral discussions.